Peopling 101: Understanding Interpersonal Skills

The skills we use to interact with others are skills that lay the foundation for successful interactions, rich relationships, and meaningful results. They are also integral tools for effective leadership.

Unfortunately, many people graduate school and go through several initial jobs before they learn they lack basic communication, team-building, and conflict resolution skills.

For too long these skills have been referred to as “emotional intelligence” or “soft skills.” Though some K-10 programs now integrate Emotional Intelligence skills into their schools, most business school and graduate programs assume competency of these skills as part of the application process.

People who want to advance their careers eventually come to the conclusion that they need to take time to assess their social skills to foster the climate conducive for learning and leading.




Interpersonal skills are the tools that enable people to communicate, learn, ask for help, get needs met in appropriate ways, get along with others, make friends, develop healthy relationships, protect themselves, and in general, be able to interact with the society harmoniously. As such they form a foundation for every interaction we have.

Basic interactions include behaviors like making eye contact, using names, and sharing information. Can you think back to a group you worked in that had all these basic qualities, and some that perhaps did not? These behaviors seem small and inconsequential but can have a big impact on the bottom line. When we don’t maintain eye contact, we get left out of impromptu gatherings and conversations where information is shared. When we don’t use direct address and speak only for ourselves, not for others, we learn to take a stand, become trustworthy, and authentic. Following directions and working in groups speaks to our effectiveness. Sharing information is what keeps the wheels turning in groups. When we hoard information and it only benefits our own advancement, it holds the rest of the group back. This can directly impact safety, quality, revenue, and time.

Figure 1: People Skills

Figure 1: People Skills

Once people feel comfortable operating in and out of groups, it’s time to look at communication skills by practicing or looking for specific behaviors, such as the table below. Sit in any meeting, and you’ll more clearly identify the attributes of the negative behavior. It’s always easier to spot in others, isn’t it?




Sounds like….

  • tapping a foot or pencil

  • Saying “uh huh” a lot

  • Saying “really”

  • Sighing

  • Asking non sequitur questions, “What’s for lunch?” “Are you going to the game?”

Looks like…

  • Darting eyes

  • Fidgeting with a gadget

  • Playing with hair or clothing

  • Rummaging through paperwork

  • Looking down

  • Turning away

  • Not facing the speaker

  • Looking at the clock

Once people gain awareness of the things they say and do that may exhibit non listening skills, they are ready to create Chart of Active Listening Characteristics. By writing what the skill looks like and sounds like, the abstract skill of "listening" becomes more concrete and measurable.


Sounds like…

  • “Say that one more time.”

  • “I know what you mean.”

  • “Tell me more.”

  • “So what you’re saying is…”

  • “That’s a good idea…”

Looks like…

  • Nodding

  • Making eye contact

  • Positive body language

  • Smiling

  • Generally calm, relaxed body language



We can laugh and say we should have learned these behaviors in kindergarten—and the thing is, we did! But when faced with a potential result like test scores or managing the bottom line, we forget that how we get there matters.

If we are going to advance in our careers, we are going to need to better assess our own and others’ social skills. Too often we are stumped for language when asked to give feedback on themselves or our peers. We need to translate the skills to checklists that we can use to self-evaluate our own progress. Sometimes just the awareness of the these skills helps focus our attention. We understand these ideas intellectually, just too often lose them in practice.

It is important to integrate the practice of observing, embodying, and practicing these skills in our day to day. We can justify reflection time to monitor these skills because we need to know the parameters and the expectations of high-performing behavior—whatever level we serve.

For ideas on how to develop a practice for reflection, check out posts on Developing a Practice, Morning Practice, Evening Practice, and what it means to Maintain Tension.